A history of shifting fortunes for African penguins


  • Daniel B. Thomas,

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Vertebrate Zoology, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, USA
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  • Daniel T. Ksepka

    1. Department of Marine, Earth, and Atmospheric Sciences, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC, USA
    2. Department of Paleontology, North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, Raleigh, NC, USA
    Current affiliation:
    1. National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, Durham, NC, USA
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Africa is home today to only a single breeding species of penguin, Spheniscus demersus (black-footed penguin), which is endangered with extinction. Spheniscus demersus has been the only breeding species of penguin to share African coastlines with humans over the last 400 000 years. Interestingly, African penguin diversity was substantially higher before the evolution of archaic humans. The fossil record indicates that a diverse assemblage of penguin species inhabited the southern African coasts for much of the Neogene. Previous excavations have identified four distinct species in Early Pliocene coastal marine deposits. Here we extend this pattern of high diversity and report the oldest record of penguins from Africa. Seventeen penguin specimens were identified from the Saldanha Steel locality, revealing the presence of at least four distinct species in South Africa during the Miocene. The largest of these species reached the size of the extant Aptenodytes patagonicus (king penguin), whereas the smallest was approximately the size of the smallest extant penguin Eudyptula minor (little blue penguin). Recovery of Miocene penguin remains is in accordance with earlier predictions of multiple pre-Pliocene colonizations of Africa and supports a higher level of ecological diversity amongst African penguins in the past. © 2013 The Linnean Society of London